Computer art emerged amid the social and cultural backdrop of the Cold War era in Britain, America and Europe. In the artworld the idea of post-modernism began to emerge with Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism and performance. However, the history of computer art and its importance in changing our ideas of who and what can make art is often ignored. This essay will consider some current literature and research resources to firstly examine early non-professional pioneers of computer art who made art with computer code. Next, the essay will examine the ways early computer artworks challenged traditional notions of authorship
For clarity, Computer Art exists in two spheres; the first is where the computer makes a traditional process more efficient, cheaper or faster, such as photo processing or film editing. The second is where the computer is the medium – this art cannot exist without the computer and uses computer code, or algorithms to make visible and add form to finished works.
Computer art (CA) emerged from early developments in computer technologies and cybernetics. The first computer possessing the capability to store and run programs, called IAS, was in fact funded to carry out H-bomb calculations. In this context many practitioners from computer science began making visual experiments. For example, researchers at Bell Laboratories, A. Michael Noll and Bela Julez were encouraged to create computer generated visual analogues to their professional activities. Traditional artists, aided by non-professionals began challenging computational devices and establishing international groups. In France the GRAV group was spearheaded by Vera Molner. In Zagreb science-orientated artists formed the New Tendencies movement. In the UK, amid a backdrop of escalating welfare costs, increasing public unrest and student protests, Jasia Reichardt curated the first of five exhibitions celebrating computer art in 1968. Cybernetic Serendipity, at the ICA, London was seen by 60,000 people and displayed the work of 325 participants. Her edited volume Cybernetics, Art and Ideas (1971) was directly inspired by the work of her Stuttgart colleague, Max Bense and is a critical guide to British computer art.
In Germany, scientists and artists worked in Stuttgart inspired by system aesthetics studies of philosopher, Max Bense. In a 1965 exhibition in Stuttgart, Bense had invited Georg Nees, a mathematician at Siemens in Erlangen to show 10 line drawings that had been made by a digital computer controlling a flat-bed drawing machine – the Zuse Z64 Graphomat. Accompanying the drawings was a text by Bense, entitled, Projects of Generative Aesthetics. The compArt database of Digital Art (daDA) is a growing repository on digital art based in the University of Bremen. It holds a copy of Bense’s manifesto. It also shows that the Nees drawings proved controversial and attracted widespread criticism. Nake recalls artists from the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Art ‘became nervous, hostile, furious.’ For French philosopher Jacque Rancière, the labour of a worker who works in another realm – the scientist working as artist – is a political act. The scientist’s unorthodox working moves his fraternity with other scientists, demanding recognition in a new, bourgeoise network. For Rancière this is evidence that ‘workers don’t correspond to the historical mission laid out by doctrinaire Marxists. The ‘scasm’ developing between the unique work of high art and developing computer art, happenings, environments, kinetic, luminous and interactive work is explored in British philosopher, Jack Burnham’s writings on System Aesthetics. The considerable volumes of his work are available at online digital art archive, Monoskop.org, which would offer significant help with this project. Writer and artist David MacLagan helps to understand the consequential hostility claiming the wider art world fears it ‘would become adulterated and its eccentric and solitary character would become diluted’ by any so-called ‘outsider art’ that doesn’t subscribe to models of creative geniuses prevalent at the time.
Technology philosopher, Grant Taylor refutes MacLagan, instead claiming ‘what was central to the interest in outsider art was human impulse or the hidden genius’ that seemed to personify these artists.Computer art was made by running algorithms, which created new, unique outputs each time the code was executed because the code contained variables that changed part of the output each iteration. With output devices limited to oscilloscopes, and later plotters, artists turned to computer controlled mechanical devices, or robots, that reacted to viewers input. Far from exposing a hidden genius, CA, was seen as the epitome of soulessness. Although historian Susannah Thompson claims ‘‘Outsider art’ was highly fashionable for an elite artworld in the early to mid-twentieth century’, the work of non-professional computer artists suffered identity issues. Taylor quotes artist Brian Reffin-Smith as saying, ‘that most of it is done by people whose knowledge of contemporary art and its problems is more or less zero’. Computer art seemed to mock all that was human, and the creative genius to boot, producing cold, cultural products under the control of technologists rather than artists. The practice of making CA often represented interdisciplinary collaboration, with the works offered as evidence as such, rather than being offered as an object of appreciation by the artworld.
The philosopher and art writer, George Dickie posited an institutional theory of art, that helps to contextualise the derision evidenced by Smith above. In the 1950s, Neo-Wittgenstein philosophers contemplated that art cannot be easily defined, claiming any such definition would be incompatible with artistic innovation by placing arbitrary limits on what constituted artistic practice. However, in 1974, Dickie attempted to define art using his ‘institutional theory’, which rests largely on an art work’s status in the ‘artworld’; a social institution, underwritten by rules and procedures. If an artefact is ‘offered as a candidate for appreciation by a person qualified to act on behalf of the institution’, it must be art.Objections to the theory ask if ‘art’ can be described as a social institution? Moreover, what are the criteria for appreciation? The theory disallows the work of untrained and non-professional artists. Computer artists created their own networks, representing and curating themselves, as seen above in Stuttgart, Zagreb and London. Thompson argues that despite artists attempts to represent themselves, critics, curators and historians try to shape the way they are critically framed. There is a tendency by the art world to speak on behalf of non-professional artists, ignoring the artist’s agency in creating their own ideologies and discourse.
Yet within the group itself, the role of non-professional artists is downplayed. In my recent interview with Wolf Lieser, owner and curator of the Digital Art Museum in Berlin, and authority on Computer Art, he argued that ‘the technicians without an art background were not very influential’. Many of the early pioneers are still alive, and along with Lieser can provide primary oral histories (or video testimony) which would create a unique evidence base for this project, where the project question could evolve to account for this valuable range of sources. Lieser goes on to claim that the non-professional pioneers, naming George Nees and Frank H. Herbert ‘didn’t stand the test of time and weren’t therefore very influential’. This despite Nees’s solo show as recently as 2014.
The solo show represents a key moment in any artists practice and stamps a mark of her authorship on the canon. The value concept is traditionally bestowed on work when it is seen as unique and irreproducible, granting it aura. Arguably digital (re)productions are scrubbed of the aura Walter Benjamin associated with the ‘accretion of history and tradition around an object.’ But if aura means reclaiming the original essence of life of an original, then the code from which a digital work is rendered, and the iterations that are derived form it come closer to representing an original than the original itself. The programming framework and the embedded variability of code literality captures an images history of transformations between the first, and each subsequent rendering. Moreover, as emerging technical possibilities emphasised processes of creation and creativity, where infinite reproducibility is possible, a digital original becomes indistinguishable form its copy. The reproduction therefore emancipates the artists from the religiose mythologies of creativity, authenticity and authority.
The Computer Arts Society (CAS) was founded in 1968 to encourage creative uses of computers and discourse in this area. Its bulletin, Page was published between 1969-1985, and 2004-present, and is a valuable archival resource. CAS hold regular lectures by researchers, academics and artists in London, recently moving to Zoom, and are archived and accessible form their web-presence. Their records show that authorship was first mentioned in 1972 in an article by Robin Shirley, who argues that art is shaped by the response of artists to the character of their tools. ‘Anything else would dehumanise the artist’ claims Shirley. However as Art historian Steve Edwards claims, during the 1970s historians ‘unpicked interlocking assumptions that placed the canons of resistance at a permanent disadvantage.’ According to Post-structuralist theory the author-god is dead, forced to relinquish the privileged source of meaning and value in an artwork. By no means new, this has been challenged by Dadaists, Surrealists and the readymade all diminish the significance of the artists and a fuller understanding of this could underpin a developing research question. This revision of authorship could be useful for considering similar questions about CA, where coincidentally, at that time accusations regarding CA as inauthentic and lacking authorship began to wane, with notable art critics entering the fray. James Elkins for example, reflecting on the time in the mid-1990s suggests that we had come to respond to our [computer] creations in an especially narrow way. He remarks that CA is more rapid and less pictorially informed than in previous centuries, but it is also more lucid and schematic than ever before. These differences must be interrogated, but as long as art historians shy away from CA, the historical discourse surrounding any new technologies creating art will edge towards a vacuum.
In his book, The Future of the Image (2007) Rancière suggests that by separating the labour from the process reduces the action of the computer’s output device to its essence of recording moving parts. ‘By compressing the action into a sequence of perceptions and movements’ explanations of the reasons are negated. In this sense, pioneering computer art may not realise a peculiar essence of the scientist maker, but instead of the computer itself. This ambivalence to the author ‘creates and retracts meaning, and ensure and undo the link between perceptions, actions and effects’ This clearly separates CA from the traditional arts in the Western sphere. The image-function therefore is to draw attention to the medium as a formal experience rather than meaning. Art critic Clement claimed Greenberg claimed that good art was characteristically about its own medium, and was preoccupied with the arrangement of ‘space, colour, surface and shape’. But it performs a double operation as it calls attention to what we call art.
In conclusion, the scope of the initial question is too broad, and other questions have arisen. What is Cybernetics and in what ways was it important in the development of CA? How can post-structuralist theory be deployed in the understanding the computer artists author-function? The short length of this essay has precluded an analysis of the many computer art exhibitions and the modern festivals they spawned. The annual Austrian event, ArsElectronica has celebrated academic thought and computer art since the 1980’s. Additionally the success of Cybernetic Serendipity deserves, and other exhibitions warrant significant investigation.
To what extent did the international network of pioneering artists facilitate computer art’s incubation? Movements in art often have international proponents; Art Nouveau in Glasgow, Catalonya, Austria and Paris for example. The academic network of scientists and global academies allowed computer art to burgeon simultaneously. As such the study of computer art could cascade and become cumbersome. Instead, this paper it can be concluded that an adequate study of computer art must be geographically centered. The question for this essay should have therefore have been, In what ways was the British non-professional computer artists questioning of what counts as art also a challenge to the notion of authorship?
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